Saturday, May 23, 2015

FOLLOWIN' MOMMA

If you're a fuzzy wittle mallard duckling, the first thing you learn to do is mind your momma. Whatever momma says do, you and your not-long-from-the-egg siblings, do immediately—no sass, no backtalk. And when momma says "follow me," being one of her seven extremely cute and mostly obedient youngsters, you form a line and paddle for all you're worth as you carry out her marching, er, swimming orders…even if that means following her up a fast and rock-strewn riffle that seems like a full-blown whitewater rapids—at least to a wittle fuzzy duckling. 

After all, what momma says, goes. Right? 

('Course, being the last ducking in line, you say a quick wittle prayer nobody ahead quacks up!)
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Thursday, May 21, 2015

A MENACINGLY SPECTACULAR PILEATED!

A pair of pileated woodpeckers are currently nesting in a big sycamore on the island directly across the channel from the cottage. Their nest entrance, an elongated oval hole, is located approximately 40 feet up. It's about the size and shape of your two fists held one atop the other.
I have no idea of the cavity's dimensions, though being a sycamore, the interior space could easily be quite expansive.

Every so often, one bird or the other comes flapping over to check things around around the house. That's what the male pileated in the close-up photos is doing. He's investigating a couple of old stumps I've rolled into the dooryard to use as bird-feeding platforms during the winter. Apparently he found a supply of tasty grubs or bugs of some sort, because he poked about for several minutes, whacking away like a deranged lumberjack.

Pileateds are probably the largest woodpecker in North America. I say probably because the ivory billed, if not now extinct, is actually slightly larger. But the crow-sized pileated is still huge. Which is why lots of country folks—especially down South—are apt to call them Lord God birds. As in "Lord, God! Look at the size of that woodpecker!" 

They are, indeed, simply astonishing. I see them every day, and have been around pileateds much of my life, yet I'm still nearly dumbfounded by their outrageous size. Words simply fail in doing justice to the actuality of seeing one of these giant woodpeckers hanging upside-down on a suet feeder. 

But not just big, and certainly not cute…menacingly spectacular! 
They look like a cross between Count Dracula and a pterodactyl, outfitted in what might be an old KISS costume. Between that hair-trigger psycho look in their yellow eyes, and the lethal bill, if I were any bird smaller than an eagle, I know I'd leave the pileated alone.
Still, every time I see a pileated, I'm saddened a bit. Not because I don't enjoy them immensely, and welcome their frequent visits, but because I keep hoping for that unlikely miracle—news of a genuine, confirmed ivory bill sighting. Whereupon, sizewise, old mister pileated will promptly and firmly be relegated to second place—a humbling experience that might just do him some good!
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Monday, May 18, 2015

THE BUCKS STOP HERE!

A week or so ago, while sitting at my desk, I felt a sensation of being watched, looked out my riverview window, and saw a yearling buck standing in the small glade on the island directly across from the cottage. Then, three or for days later, I again felt the urge to check for watchers, glanced across the river, and again saw that same yearling buck standing in almost the exact same spot.

Only it wasn't the same deer. Looking closer, I realized there were two similar sized male whitetails, both of whom—for whatever reason—had felt compelled to pause in the same place, assume practically the same broadside stance, and gaze contemplatively my way. 

How do I know they're two different animals? Because the first one—the deer at the top of this post—is a buck with modest forks in his new, velvet-covered antlers. While the second deer sports only stubby spikes. In deer-hunter parlance, a forkhorn and a spikehorn.

Double click the images and compare for yourself.

The amazing thing to me is that both bucks choose to pause and look in my direction from the identical vantage point—standing almost in each other's hoofprints.

I guess the bucks really do stop there!



    

Saturday, May 16, 2015

PHOEBE-THE-FLYCATCHER

One of my favorite riverbank birds is the Eastern Phoebe, a smallish, gray-brown songbird with buff underbelly and rather oversized head. 

Phoebes are members of the tyrant flycatcher family. Common hereabouts. And in spite of the "Eastern" prefix, found throughout much of the United States and Canada except for the deep South and arid Southwest.

The alert and dapper little bird takes it names from the male's raspy, two-note song: fee-bee! fee-bee! Moreover, the phoebe is one of the earliest winter migrants to return to their annual breeding grounds each spring. Thus, when you hear their distinctive, eponymous call in mid-March, it's always a welcome confirmation that—regardless of current weather—vernal change is already underway.

Phoebes are, as their flycatcher designation suggests, primarily insect eaters. And flying insects—mayflies, caddisflies, bees, wasps, dragonflies, beetles, butterflies, moths, cicadas, etc.—make up the bulk of their diet. They like to hunt fairly open areas, and are especially fond of streams, which regularly offer rich hatches of aquatic insects. 

From a low perch, they sit—often with their tail bobbing, as if in nervous anticipation—carefully watching an area for bugs. When some flying tidbit is spotted, the phoebe makes a swiftly-launched aerial intercept, quickly nailing their prey with deadly accuracy. Depending on the size of their hapless victim, they'll either eat on-the-wing, or return to their observation perch for a more leisurely meal. 

The phoebe in the photo (yeah, I'm just guessing it's the same bird) has been perching and feeding from this dead limb near the end of the deck all week, regularly singing its name…fee-bee! fee-bee!…and of course, keeping me pleasantly distracted. 
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Sunday, May 10, 2015

COLOR & LIGHT

Small, volunteer silver maple, backlit, with background river shadows.  

Photography is all about "capturing" light. Color is that fourth element of a scene or object besides shape, form, and texture. Light impacts and changes color. 

New leaves, riverbank ailanthus, backlit.
In nature, light is ever-shifting, depending on time of day, season, sky conditions, direction, even parts of a nearby landscape that might affect the quality or quantity of light reaching your subject. This, in turn, affects the light's color and thus the color of whatever you're looking to photograph—no matter if that light is reflected, direct, ambient, etc.

Shade-growing species tulips,
dramatically spotlit by a bit of sun.
The trio of images in today's post were all taken over the last few days—and all were shot within a dozen feet of one another, while sitting in my deckside rocker waiting for a passing warbler to come flitting along. They're nothing special so far as content goes…it was the light and it illuminating effect on the color of my subject that I was trying to capture. 

Light is everything in photography—the elemental magic capable of transforming the mundane into the sublime. Even turning that proverbial sow's ear into a silk purse—at least visually.

The trick is learning to see.

Often, when I can't seem to find a scene or subject to photograph—like when those warblers I'm anticipating fail to materialize—I shift my thinking and start searching for situations featuring light which, through its wonderful alchemy, has altered the commonplace into something beautiful or interesting—a moment worth recording and sharing. And just as soon as I flip this mental switch, I invariably start to spot one potential image after another.
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Saturday, May 9, 2015

LOVELY FLAME

Hush! 'tis he! My Oriole, 
my glance of summer fire…
—from “Under the Willows,”
by James Russell Lowell

Soon after moving into this streamside cottage, one of the first things I noticed was the pair of Baltimore orioles who'd hung their nest in a towering sycamore directly across the river from the front deck. Of course, orioles are pretty hard to overlook, especially males, with their gaudy orange-and-black plumage…a bird which looks like a jaunty, living flame. 

Not to mention their loud, flute-like whistles! In both sound and sight, Baltimore oriles are made to be noticed!

Naturalist Mark Catesby named the Baltimore oriole after George Calvert, the first Lord Baltimore, who visited Virginia in 1628, and was so delighted by the song and appearance of the many orioles he saw along the way that orange-and-black became the official heraldic colors of the Maryland colony. The baseball team took it’s name from the city and its colors from the state bird.

Audubon wrote vividly of days filled with orioles and their songs when he was exploring on both the Mississippi and Ohio rivers—the “thousand musical voices coming from neighboring trees,” and the gratification he experienced “upon sight of the brilliant birds.”

Baltimore orioles, while not exclusively a riverine species, certainly love to build their "hanging basket" nests along Ohio's numerous pastoral streams. I long ago lost count of the number of such nests and their parenting birds I've spotted while wading the brooks, creeks, and rivers for smallmouth bass—many suspended from overhanging sycamore limbs 20 or more feet above the water. Orioles songs have kept me well entertained when the fishing was slow.

Lord Baltimore's colorful bird is easily one of my favorite birds, and a cheery riverside companion.        

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

NO SMARTER THAN A BUZZARD







A couple of days ago the weather oracles predicted rain would begin about eleven a.m. and continue throughout the afternoon, evening, and most of the night. The day certainly began cloudy, with skies to the west growing darker and more ominous and the morning progressed. The air felt heavy and damp. I thought it would commence raining right on schedule.

So, apparently, did the riverbank's resident turkey vultures.

In case you've never lived in close proximity to a band of ragtag buzzards, you should know they're creatures of habit. They sleep late, are slow to get up and going in the morning, and like to squabble a bit among themselves and perhaps take in some early sun before flapping off to spend their day sailing around on rising thermals, scrutinizing the land below for a tasty morsel of roadkill or otherwise deceased flesh. Moreover, they seldom stay out late—generally returning to their roost area by late-afternoon.

Decided homebodies, cautious, a little lazy. And always heedful of changing weather. 

For a turkey vulture, the roost area is both home and refuge. A pending storm—morning or afternoon—sends them scurrying back to their familiar shelter—which in this case is the riparian woods, and its mostly huge, towering sycamores, densely covering the island across from the cottage.

As I said, it was supposed to rain. It looked like rain, and felt like it was about to rain. I sure thought it was going to rain…as did the buzzards, who hadn't been off on their breakfasting carrion hunt more than a couple of hours before they came sailing back, obviously dodging the expected storm.

Except the rains never materialized. Not a drop. Though for the next couple of hours we all hunkered in our respective havens—the vultures amid their sheltering sycamores, yours truly within the cozy confines of the cottage—waiting and watching with bated breath, until the sky eventually began to lighten.

I hate to admit that when it comes to weather, I'm no smarter than a buzzard. 

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